review: The House of One Thousand Eyes

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The House of One Thousand Eyes
by Michelle Barker

Set in Cold War era East Germany during the 1980’s, this story follows 17-year-old Lena Altmann, who had lost her parents in a factory explosion and was living with her strict, party-observant aunt. Considered slow-witted due to her time in a psychiatric ward after the accident, Lena is given a job at the Stasi headquarters (the House of One Thousand Eyes) as a night cleaner. Her days consist of sleeping, going to Free German Youth meetings, and landscaping the community yard in her complex. Lena’s only real joy in life is the time she spends on Sundays with her Uncle Erich, who is a successful writer, and considered a “layabout” by his straight-laced sister and, of course, the oppressive government. When Erich goes missing and is literally erased from existence, Lena must push the boundaries at work and home to find out the truth.

I did not love Lena’s character at first–she seemed weak and merely existed. She definitely grows into a formidable protagonist, finding ways to skirt around her aunt’s restrictions and triumph over the party members who threaten her at every turn. She also manages to have a romance, make some unlikely friends, and carve some meaning into her broken life. What makes this story work so well is the curious inner dialog Lena has within herself–a voice she calls Mausi. Also, there is a “wall” inside Lena’s head that mirrors the Berlin Wall. It’s a metaphor to describe her precarious mental state, yet makes her all the more normal when the circumstances of her life–as an orphan, a grieving niece, and ultimately a prisoner of the Communist party–is described. It is a fascinating look at life behind the Berlin Wall; not only the politics, but the everyday lives of the people. I recommend this book, but with some caution–there are sexual abuse scenes that may be disturbing for some readers. The publisher lists it for ages 14+.

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